A room in an apartment building is on fire. A resident calls 911 but the fire department believes it’s really not worth its time to deal with such a minor nuisance. Still, after a little wait and taking some time to think about it, one firefighter is dispatched to check out the problem. That firefighter looks in the apartment, sees the bedroom burning, empties a small fire extinguisher and figures the fire will probably just burn itself out. He thinks it’s certainly not something worthy of a real fire department response. The firefighter heads back to the firehouse, but upon leaving fails to close the door to the apartment. A nice breeze heading down the hallway allows the fire to grow and soon there is fire in the apartment next door and many more apartments on that floor. Additional calls to 911 come in. The fire department evaluates its options but thinks the problem has already been handled by the initial response. Eventually the fire department has no choice but to respond because the fire engulfs the apartment building and spreads to many other buildings heading right toward the fire department’s own headquarters and City Hall. At this point the fire department throws everything it has at the firestorm. But it is too little and way too late.
If this were a true story, we’d all rightfully be outraged at the fire department’s handling of the situation from start to finish. But this is exactly how the City of Detroit and it’s fire department responded to a growing conflagration over the past week. It wasn’t an actual fire, but a firestorm nonetheless, created when city leaders failed to appropriately handle a TV reporter’s story last Wednesday.
Shortly after it aired, we brought you the news report from WJBK-TV’s Charlie LeDuff about paramedic Jeff Gaglio claiming he was being disciplined by the Detroit Fire Department for giving a blanket to an elderly man who was standing in the cold after his home caught fire. Just like the apartment resident in my little story, LeDuff called the fire department for a response. That response didn’t come right away. Charlie had to wait. When it did finally come it was quite inadequate. EMS Chief Jerald James phoned it in, refusing to meet LeDuff and address this serious charge with a serious answer.
It was a bad size up on the part of James and anyone else in the city government who was behind the initial response. As soon as I heard the first 30-seconds of LeDuff’s report it was clear to me this was a story that would attract attention well beyond Detroit.
The right way to handle a story like this in its earliest stages is quickly, effectively and decisively. The worst thing you can do is try to defend the indefensible and tell people that its department policy not to give blankets to old people forced out in the cold because of a fire. If that was actually the reason the medic was in trouble the best thing the department could do would be to apologize for the policy, explain the error of the department’s ways, and correct it immediately. But if the reporter had the facts wrong and the department’s actions were justified, it was equally important to explain exactly what happened very carefully to the reporter and the public, making sure that the correct information aired with the initial news story.
Of those options, it appears that Chief James chose to do the worst thing you could do. Charlie LeDuff has a recording of Jerald James defending the indefensible:
“We can’t have an employee who feels that they have a right to give away state property, be it donated, be it a blanket, be it a tire off a vehicle, without getting prior approval from somebody or notifying the proper authority. This is what he did.”
What happened next was exactly what I expected. The story went viral. This fire began spreading from room to room with no further response from the fire department for days. The story raced across the web to sites like HuffingtonPost.com, Yahoo.com (where more than 5,500 reader comments have been posted) and even the website LesbianConservative.com. There is also a Facebook page called “Blanket Detroit FD with blankets“.
It was only after a local newspaper reported on the outrage on the Internet six days later, and blankets from around the country were showing up at the Detroit Fire Department, did city officials say maybe we should be serious about putting this fire out.
They did so by saying the original story on WJBK-TV was wrong. That what Charlie LeDuff reported was “blatantly false”. The release from Mayor Dave Bing’s office on Monday indicated that the only issue with the medic was that he left the ambulance he was assigned to with one less blanket and didn’t properly report what happened to that blanket.
If that’s true, it’s a hell of a lot better story than one where a medic isn’t allowed to care for a cold old man by giving him a blanket. Where the version of the story from Mayor Bing’s office could have been effective in putting out this growing fire was back on Wednesday. That’s when James Jerald should have been standing in front of the WJBK-TV cameras and calmly explaining that reporter LeDuff has his facts all wrong.
Instead, telling that story six days later is like pulling a green line on a block long warehouse with fire showing on all sides.
On Tuesday, seven days after the fire started, Detroit Fire Department Executive Commissioner Donald Austin tried to back up the green line with a red line. The booster reel, in the form of a more detailed statement from Austin, was not much more effective at this stage of the fire, but if true, certainly gives a perspective that is quite different than what Paramedic Gaglio and even EMS Chief James told reporter LeDuff back on Wednesday. Here it is, courtesy of WJBK-TV (More from The Detroit News):
Paramedic Gaglio was disciplined by the City’s EMS division for failing to follow Fire Department reporting policy, not for providing a blanket to a citizen in need. Paramedic Gaglio properly provided a blanket to a citizen who was burned out of his home on September 18, 2012. However, Paramedic Gaglio was cited, with an official departmental document, for failing to follow Department policy related to inventory accounting for an ambulance. Paramedic Gaglio has not and will not be suspended.
It is the Fire Department’s policy to assist the public in any way possible, including comfort in times of need; definitive care for the injured and ill; transportation to medical facilities; and protection from risk hazards to the greatest possible extent. The members of the Detroit Fire Department are compassionate EMS personnel and fire fighters who are committed to protecting the safety of the citizens of Detroit and the public at large.
Still, Charlie LeDuff stands by his reporting. Also, Melissa Kalcec Gaglio posted Tuesday night on the “Blanket the Detroit FD with blankets” Facebook page the image below of the “Official Detroit Fire Department-Charge” given to her husband Jeff. She wrote, “Nowhere does it say ANYTHING other than giving away a blanket. Detroit leaders, stop back peddling and admit your ignorance.”
Commissioner Austin failing to explain this paperwork and how it fits in with his own statement will just further delay putting out this fire. It also adds more doubt that the statements from Mayor Bing and Commissioner Austin will have any real impact at this point in debunking LeDuff’s story and repairing the damage done to the department’s image.
For almost two years now I have been writing about Charlie LeDuff’s advocacy journalism and suggesting better ways for Detroit officials to respond to his stories (here, here, here & here). How this story was (mis)handled is business as usual for Mayor Bing, Commissioner Austin and the commissioners before him.
I know they have enormous problems in Detroit. I don’t envy anyone who has to lead in that environment. But can’t they see their usual reaction to LeDuff just doesn’t work? In fact, their typical response wouldn’t work with any reporter much less one who loves to ambush city officials and add theatrics like getting in bed with a medic and wearing a blanket as a cape.
With LeDuff think big fire equal big water. Better yet put the fire out before it becomes big.
To Detroit’s leaders, either change your tactics or watch as flames continually engulf the city’s image.
With bad news nothing beats an agressive interior attack. Get in, put the fire out early before it spreads. You may get a little dirty in the process and get a few burns along the way, but the faster you extinguish it, the faster you can begin the salvage and overhaul of your department’s reputation.
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Also on STATter911 …
- Detroit mayor says TV reporter’s EMS blanket story is ‘blatantly false’. Charlie LeDuff stands by story that medic is punished for helping elderly man. – October 15, 2012
- Detroit commissioner now admits TV reporter’s blanket story isn’t ‘blatantly false’. Dave explains why Donald Austin should have gotten into bed with LeDuff & medic on Day 1. – October 22, 2012
- TV’s LeDuff says Detroit medic punished for giving blanket to homeless man. Reporter thinks it’s time to clean out headquarters. – October 11, 2012
- TV station reports FBI & MI attorney general investigating Detroit EMS. Charlie LeDuff back on track. – February 7, 2013
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